CD Review: LeAnn Rimes – Spitfire (Curb, 2013)
LeAnn Rimes has traveled a long way from the innocent pining of “Blue,” and listeners – fans and foes alike – can’t help but hear her music through the prism (some might say “prison”) of her personal-made-public life. Her well-documented marital misdeeds weren’t scrubbed from the public’s consciousness by apology or silence, so Rimes is now embracing them in song. Those who still believe in Rimes’ humanity will hear her taking ownership of her mistakes, while those who remain unconvinced of her remorse will hear the third step in a publicist’s damage control plan. Most likely these songs (and the attendant interviews, publicity and rehab stint) split the difference, with Rimes fighting to make peace with herself more so than with the public.
The plea from Rimes (or her fans) to “just listen to the album” will go mostly unheeded, as any album – and particularly this album – doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Rimes has spotlighted the issues that cause friction with her detractors, and in doing so is likely to add gasoline to the conflagration. And it’s a shame, because if you could divorce the songs from the real-life transgressions of their author, you’d find an album of emotional performances that are more earthen and gritty than anything Rimes has recorded before. But you can’t unring a bell, and it will remain unseemly to many listeners for Rimes to take on the aggressive posture of “Spitfire,” to sing the public mea culpa of “What Have I Done?” or to lustily serenade her co-conspirator with Buddy & Julie Miller’s “Gasoline and Matches.”
Worse yet is “Borrowed.” Songs about cheating have a long and celebrated history in country music, but the first person narrative of “Borrowed” hits too close to home in a world that cycles and recycles scandal so liberally in the media. The lack of abstraction between Rimes’ lyric and the real-life immorality it chronicles is wince-worthy. When she fictionalizes, such as with the mistreatment of “You Ain’t Right,” she neatly elides adultery from the inventory of offenses, and when she sings of being wronged on “God Takes Care of Your Kind,” it’s as if she’s channeling the emotions of her first husband, as well many of her former fans.
It’s difficult to tell whether Rimes is purposely pillorying herself, or was simply unaware of how these songs play in public. She wraps rationalization around an olive branch for “Just a Girl Like You,” but in doing so only manages to suggest an absolution that’s wholly unbecoming. The album’s most lucid moment is heard on “I Do Now,” in which Rimes admits she hadn’t really understood Hank Williams’ cheating hearts until she had one of her own. But the song’s affirmation of eternal love for her new mate as “the one that matters” begs the question of whether her guilt is genuine, and the declaration “I’m alive more than I’ve ever been / Freer than I’ve ever known” plays like a protestation in place of a truth. This may all be her truth, but it’s not one her many former fans are ready to accept.
Rimes was quite canny in selecting her team for this album, pulling in talented co-writers, complementary guests Rob Thomas, Jeff Beck, Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski, and co-producer Darrell Brown. It’s the latter who gives the album its most graceful country moments, with paired-down instrumentals and slowed tempos that force Rimes to reach for the more delicately emotional parts of her voice. Rimes’ marketing team soft-launched the album in Australia, Germany and the UK, perhaps hoping that U.S. fans would pick up the import and build positive word-of-mouth before the stateside release in June. That domestic launch now includes three different live bonus tracks, one for each of the Walmart, Amazon and iTunes editions, which might help shore up the sales lost to those who still can’t forgive or forget.